I’m certainly not of the opinion that everything needs to be easily classifiable, especially in film. The term “genre-bending” refers in many cases to something that defies definition, and that’s great. But things need to be easily marketable and genre generally helps that. Is it a comedy, action movie, sci-fi, horror, drama (which is just the catch-all), etc.? When a movie can’t be categorized in this way, it’s easier for a movie to get lost.
John McNaughton’s “new” film The Harvest has fallen victim to this, I think. Despite a really great cast, the movie has no discernible genre; it’s billed as a horror but it’s not all that horrific. This is probably part of the reason (though I’m sure there are many factors) as to why it was made in 2013 but is only seeing the light of day now.
McNaughton has had an eclectic career popping in and out of the horror genre, most notably for his narrative feature debut Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in 1986, but also the infamous neo-noir Wild Things in 1998. The Harvest, sadly, looks like it could have been directed by anybody. The locations are very standard and the camerawork follows suit, however the nature of the screenplay means that there needs to be two powerhouse performances in key roles and here they’re delivered by Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon, both of whom really do turn in sufficiently nutso work.
First, the plot. It’s hard to talk about this movie, really, without giving away too much, but the broad trailer points are these. A young girl named Maryann (Natasha Calis) moves to the country with her grandparents (the grandfather played by Peter Fonda) because her own parents are no longer around. She’s sad to be away from her friends and doesn’t think she’ll ever make new ones. One day while out walking, she comes across a neighboring house (not close but not far) in the window of which she sees a boy (Charlie Tahan) named Andy around her own age. He’s very sick and can’t leave his bed, much less the house. So she climbs in the window and starts playing video games with him. Now, in general, this wouldn’t be a bad thing, but Andy’s mother (Samantha Morton) it’s overly protective, medicates the boy herself, and doesn’t want anyone to see him, to the detriment of the boy. He keeps thinking he’s going to get better soon, but it’s pretty clear his mother thinks he will not. The boy’s father (Michael Shannon) is brow-beaten and at the end of his tether with a paranoid and smothering wife, but doesn’t know what else to do. He thinks Andy should have a friend.
But there’s a secret involving this family, and a disturbing one. Maryann continues to come over, despite Andy’s mother’s insistence that she not, as well as her own grandparents’ asking her to respect that the boy is dying. The more Maryann comes over, whether she’s seen or not, the more Andy’s mother begins going further and further off the deep end. She verbally abuses the bedridden boy, eventually breaking or throwing away all of his toys and video games until he’s effectively in a plain hospital room. Maryann goes into the basement and finds something even more shocking than this abusive relationship, but will anyone believe her?
The story for this movie is pretty pedestrian and if it didn’t have the twist it had, which comes right around the halfway mark, there wouldn’t be much to keep us invested. However, the twist buys us just about enough time for the story to wrap up. Morton and Shannon give great performances, Morton specifically, who starts out as concerned and eventually devolves into a straight-up nutcase. Shannon, different from a lot of roles he’s played, gets to be the more rational but certainly troubled individual and one in whom we actually feel a little bit safer. Not much, mind you. The notion of who the main character is becomes slightly muddled, and while Calis does a find job, it starts to feel like she isn’t the focus after a certain point, despite her being the outsider with a desire to help her friend.
As I said, this movie is technically a horror movie, but really it’s more of a drama with some thriller elements in it. It works pretty well on those terms and is “scary” just in how insane Morton’s character ends up being, but I certainly wouldn’t say this is a horror movie in the same way. It’s worth a look, though, just don’t expect big scares or a particularly new plot.